There is no doubt that working life has been hugely challenging during the pandemic. A big question now, as the economy and society begin to unlock, is whether things will – or indeed should – return to how they were before coronavirus.
This has sparked a widespread debate about the future of work, asking, for instance, whether the wider use of digital technology and working from home are here to stay and what this means for productivity.
Given that one of the key strands of UNISON’s No Going Back to Normal campaign is the necessity for fair and safe workplaces in the post-pandemic world, the union will be at the centre of this debate.
As a starting point, it’s worth reflecting on what’s different now, compared with March 2020, before the first lockdown. In doing so, many members might be struck by a paradox: the sense that everything has changed – but nothing has changed.
This isn’t to trivialise what has been and continues to be an incredibly stressful time at work for many.
But we should acknowledge that, while on the one hand working life feels and looks like it’s transformed before our very eyes, on the other, when you strip it all back and look at the underlying character of working life – and the factors that shape it – things are pretty much carrying on as they were before.
Seen like this, the ‘new normal’ for many is in many respects simply a new phase in our ongoing efforts to make work better.
New times, old concerns
So, yes, digital technology and artificial intelligence (AI) are things that have certainly transformed the way in which hundreds of thousands of people working in public services have worked over recent months.
Issues around safe workplaces and infection control have become and continue to be massively important for our members in schools, care homes, hospitals, and for those visiting clients and patients in their homes.
And of course, the sharp labour market disparities – and social and racial inequalities that characterise the UK – have become part of the national conversation in a way that we wouldn’t have thought possible two years ago.
However, the introduction of new technology, concerns around health and safety in the workplace and the struggle for status and fairness for different groups of workers or sections of society, are issues that are as old as the industrial revolution; it’s just that, in this period, it feels as though these moving parts in working life have had rocket boosters placed under them.
The key point, though, is that the fundamental structures and power relations that underpin working life remain unchanged.
And as such, although the context is very different, work in the ‘new normal’ is still characterised by struggles around work intensification, the struggle for dignity and autonomy, and employers seeking to regulate working life.
Clearly this struggle is going to play out in different ways for different groups of members in the immediate future.
Different pandemic experiences
Recent member surveys have been very revealing about the range of member experiences during the pandemic.
At one end of the scale there have been members working in care homes or vulnerable members forced into workplaces when infection rates were at their highest. For these members, work life felt unsafe. Some were scared to go to work.
At the other end of the scale have been those who, working from home, have relished the flexibility and the opportunity to strike a better work-life balance.
And there were those somewhere in the middle, working from home but feeling isolated and cooped up – unable to turn off their lap-tops and escape the workplace, because it was also their kitchen or bedroom.
The surveys were also revealing about what changes from this period members would like to keep.
Those who work in public-facing roles – especially in schools – are keen to hang on to improved hygiene.
Many of those who’ve worked from home and enjoyed it want to stay there, at least part of the time.
For those hoping to continue to work flexibly in a more hybrid world of work, it’s not difficult to see a pushback from employers seeking to reassert more control as the unlocking of society unfolds.
One challenge for UNISON will be managing the difficult balance between the needs of different groups of members.
Clearly the state of the economy is going to have a significant influence on the world of work in the future months. Public finances are, by recent standards, in uncharted territory. The UK government is signalling a return to austerity.
There is significant potential for an increase in unemployment in some sectors, with the withdrawal of furlough and other support measures. And added to this is turbulence as a consequence of Brexit.
There is every likelihood that employers will be struggling and that workplaces will be on the frontline, which could mean an intensification of work for UNISON and other trade unions.
UNISON planning for the future
We can’t, however, let the day-to-day crowd out the big structural and political choices that lie behind how the world of work functions.
In this context, the union’s campaign work will complement what’s happening in the workplace in three key ways.
First, in ensuring that UNISON plays a leading role in the national debate about a post-COVID settlement that has decent work at its core.
The national executive council (NEC) introduced a motion at this year’s special delegate conference that spelled this out – recognising that the experience of the pandemic has created conditions for radical change similar to those in 1945.
The motion sets out four strands where we will concentrate our campaign effort:
- securing sustained, long-term investment in public services;
- winning decent pay;
- creating a more equal and sustainable post-COVID society;
- ensuring that we have a fair and safe world of work.
The union plans to pursue this agenda relentlessly, focusing on key political pressure points, such as the public inquiry into the government’s handling of COVID-19, and amplifying members’ experiences.
The second approach involves developing and using our expertise in relation to important policies and trends that will affect the future world of work in public services and beyond. For example, doing work around AI and digital technology in the workplace, and lobbying government on the emerging legislation on procurement and the post-Brexit subsidy regime that were flagged in the recent Queen’s Speech.
Third and finally, we intend to use our political campaign fund to campaign and lobby around labour market injustices, such as hire and fire and lack of sick pay provision. And of course, working to build the alternative through the union’s own Labour Link.
There are busy times ahead – but exciting ones and with huge potential.
Find out more about the No Back to Normal campaign